April 08, 2010

Is it really wrong to date your work?

I was going to do another Shelf by Shelf today [I totally missed my March entry], but Abby Annis's blog caught my attention instead.

Abby's post was about the use of trendy slang in YA.

For the most part, I (nor most of the people in Abby's comments, it seems) don't use trendy slang. No rad or sweet or wicked unless there is a reason for it (after all, some people, and thus characters, are quirky). Remember, though - some teen slang is here to stay.

Like, um... dude... you know?

Of course, you should use these words with caution, otherwise you end up with (as my crit partner Rachel pointed out) caricatures instead of characters.

The fear is that you will date your work. That a teen will read your book and think, "Ummm... yeah. I don't know anyone who talks like that."

Another way to date your work is details. I am mindful of the references I include in my MS. Some things I don't mind including, whether it dates my work or not. Even if someone reads my book 50 years in the future (I can dream, can't I?) they'll have heard of Steve Jobs's shiny little invention called the iPod. We know what the record player is, don't we? For the most part, however, I am careful, because my book is not inextricably linked to real events, and therefore, dating my work will not richen the reader's experience.

In writing, you must:
  • Embrace your novel's setting and time period, even if it is contemporary. Some stories are so intricately entwined with the exact moment they take place that dating is in actuality world-building. Treat the novel as a study of that time period as much as a vehicle to tell your story and it will be richer for it.
  • Mind the details that may date your work, and avoid those that mark your story as taking place during a specific period.
I think most people aim to not date their work because, really, it is the easiest route. And that's not to condemn anyone - writing a novel is such hard work, choosing to watch your time-related details is no different than choosing to write a locally set book instead of setting it in a fictitious or far-away land. Just a matter of choice.

My point is that either option can be done well.

I recently reviewed the ARC for LIFE, AFTER by Sarah Darer Littman. LIFE is set mostly during '02-'03 (my senior year of high school, coincidentally). The narrator, Dani, mentions this cool new thing called a social networking site - Friendster.
Could Littman have found a different plot device to carry out Friendster's purpose? Sure. The mention does date the book, after all. But why should she have? The plot could not have unfolded during any other time because of the story's unique ties to the Argentine economic crisis ('99-'02) and 9/11, so what we might normally think of as 'dating' creates a sense of authenticity. Friendster was the thing when the story took place (incidentally, did any of you ever have a Friendster? I had a MySpace and have a Facebook, but never a Friendster).
We don't read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and think:

Dude, this book is so dated.
So I submit to you, friendly readers, that sometimes 'dating' isn't dating at all. It's authenticity.

What say you?


The Blue Lipstick Samurai said...

Dialogue is so useful when done well, but so tricky to nail exactly. I love when people try to 'translate' dated speech... Sometimes it's so easy it just slips from one era to the other, and other times it's better left as is. I can't imagine Jane Austen or good ol' Shakespeare were considering the interpretations of their work by future generations... I guess you just have to write for now and trust that human beings won't change too much?

Joseph Rooks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph Rooks said...

Poorly written technology references trying to be trendy trigger my intellectual gag reflex, especially Hollywood's garbage hacking scenes. That's my only gripe about dated work.

Abby Stevens said...

Joe - I agree. It's easy to mess up anything 'trendy' if you are writing inauthentically - either not being personally familiar with what you are writing or not doing enough research. Poorly written is poorly written, regardless.

Digital Kitsune said...

Tubular! I didn't realize rad was still trendy slang. (^_^)

I occasionally still here the word Friendster tossed around. A guy at work said he had one back in the day. I never had one ... took me forever to even sign up for myspace.

Joe - Hollywood hacking is spot on. I mean when I'm cracking a password I always do it one character at a time and all my hacking tools have custom GUIs, usually in 3d and in some cases I get to break out my VR suit.

Elana Johnson said...

I say you are absolutely right. What I do to get around this: Create my own slang for the worlds I create. Yep, that's what I do. Slayer. :)

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